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FAQ by Attorneys

What is the Fee Disputes Program?
How does the process work?
Can I initiate a fee dispute with my client?
Am I allowed to present this option to my client?
Can I settle a fee dispute myself with my client?
What's in it for me?
Can I use this process to resolve a dispute with another attorney?
Will the Board hear all claims?
Can I still be brought before the Commission on Lawyer Conduct or sued in court?
How will my fees be judged?
Is the process confidential?
What about conflicts of interest?
Who do I contact with questions or to volunteer as an Assigned Member, Circuit Chair or otherwise?

What is the Fee Disputes Program?
It is essentially an arbitration program (operated by the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board housed at the South Carolina Bar and overseen by the Supreme Court of South Carolina) for resolving fee disputes between you and your clients, albeit disputes between attorneys over fees can sometimes also be resolved in this program. Read the rest of these frequently asked questions (FAQ's) or this article to learn more, including contact information. You might also wish to read the FAQ's designed for clients.

How does the process work?
The Fee Dispute Program is a peer review or arbitration process run by volunteer attorneys in your community. See Rule 416, SCACR (click her and scroll to Rule 416), and its 22 sub-rules, for details. When a complaint as to fees is filed with the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board, it is assigned for investigation to a volunteer attorney in the circuit where your principal practice is located. That Assigned Member will talk with both sides, mediate a compromise where possible and appropriate, and file a recommendation with a Circuit Chair who concurs in the recommendation or forwards the matter for review by a 3-member hearing panel in the same circuit. (If the claim is over $5,000, an appeal can be had to a hearing panel, regardless of the Circuit Chair's position on the matter. ) The decision of the Board is binding. Further appeal to the local circuit court is an option, but to promote finality, the grounds to vacate, as in all arbitrations, are narrow: primarily fraud, bias, overreaching, or violations of due process. See Rule 20.

Can I initiate a fee dispute with my client?
The lawyer may file a fee dispute against the client, provided the client agrees in writing to be bound by the decision of the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board (See Rule 9(b)). This agreement must accompany the application. Also, under the provisions of Rule 16, the party initiating the fee dispute may voluntarily terminate the process any time prior to a final decision. The client may take the matter to the court, the Commission on Lawyer Conduct or other appropriate forum.

Am I allowed to present this option to my client?
Yes, please do. It is a benefit of your Bar membership to have this program available to you and your clients, providing an alternative forum to resolve disputes rather than in other forums and by other tribunals, e.g. , the Supreme Court's Commission on Lawyer Conduct or the courts. While you cannot initiate a fee dispute claim, you can certainly encourage your client to do so.

Can I settle a fee dispute myself with my client?
Yes, please do. Compromise is encouraged where feasible and appropriate and can be written or oral. See Rule 11, ¶3. If your client has already filed a fee dispute claim with us, then any compromise or consent agreement you might reach with him or her should be communicated immediately to the Circuit Chair, who will send you and your client a letter confirming that agreement. Your compromise or agreement becomes the final decision of the Board fifteen (15) days after the date of that letter by the Circuit Chair. See Rule 11, ¶3. Of course, in reaching a compromise with your client, be sure to comply with all provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct (see Rule 407, SCACR).

What's in it for me?
As these frequently asked questions point out, this can be a faster and more amiable, confidential, convenient and final third-party resolution than you might find in a court, commission or other venue. Your fellow attorneys in your own circuit adjudge your billing practices in confidential proceedings. A final decision against your client is enforceable like a judgment and can be appealed on only very narrow grounds. While you cannot initiate a fee dispute claim, and are compelled to participate in a claim filed against you, it is actually a benefit of Bar membership and you are encouraged to promote the program with any of your disgruntled clients.

Can I use this process to resolve a dispute with another attorney?
Possibly. The Board will not participate in "the dissolution of a law partnership, law practice or any other business relationship between attorneys." See Rule 2, ¶2. However, "[t]he Board may decide fee disputes between two or more members of the South Carolina Bar when those disputes arise from a single case or fee share provided all parties consent in writing to the Board's jurisdiction." See Rule 2, ¶. If your dispute involves another member of the South Carolina Bar, arises from a single case or fee sharing arrangement, and everyone consents to the Board's jurisdiction, download and submit an application.

Will the Board hear all claims?
No. Jurisdiction of the Board is outlined in Rule 2. The Board will only consider fee disputes and not other complaints clients might have against you. For purposes of this program, a "fee" is not limited to just legal services; it includes "a legal fee, costs of litigation and disbursements associated with a legal cause, claim or matter." The Board also will not consider claims: equal to or over $50,000; more than 3 years old; involving dissolutions of law partnerships or attorney businesses; already covered by other courts, commissions or tribunals; or attorney-attorney fee disputes (unless all parties agree and the dispute arises out of a single case or fee sharing arrangement).

Can I still be brought before the Commission on Lawyer Conduct or sued in court?
Yes. This fee disputes program is limited to fee disputes, not other allegations of misconduct. "When an allegation of attorney misconduct arises out of a fee dispute, the Board, in its discretion, may (1) address the alleged misconduct in its findings, or (2) refer the matter to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct. If the alleged misconduct does not arise out of a fee dispute, it shall be referred to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct."  Rule 2. Moreover, non-compliance by an attorney with a final Board decision against him or her is reported to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct. See Rule 19.

Also, this fee disputes program is voluntary as to the client, who can terminate and withdraw at any time prior to a final decision by the Board, taking the matter elsewhere.  Rule 16. Finally, you or your client can appeal a final decision to a circuit court, albeit the grounds are very narrow and the matter is not heard de novo. Rule 20.

How will my fees be judged?
In accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct (see Rule 407, SCACR), especially Rule 1.5, which provides in pertinent part:

(a) A lawyer's fee shall be reasonable. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:

(1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;

(2) the likelihood that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;

(3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;

(4) the amount involved and the results obtained;

(5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;

(6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;

(7) the experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and

(8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

For additional information regarding ethical issues, you may wish to consult the Web site for the Bar's Ethics Advisory Committee, including ethics advisory opinions.

Is the process confidential?
Yes, except as to appeals and enforcement actions. See Rule 21.

What about conflicts of interest?
Because claims are assigned to volunteer attorneys in your own circuit, conflicts of interest can occasionally arise. Please identify them immediately if they do. Under Rule 18, reassignments within or outside of the circuit can cure the problem or even the appearance of a problem.

Who do I contact with questions or to volunteer as an Assigned Member, Circuit Chair or otherwise?
Contact Michelle Dennis at the South Carolina Bar (mdennis@scbar.org or 803-799-4015, ext. 163) with general questions or to volunteer; our mailing address is Resolution of Fee Disputes Board, c/o South Carolina Bar, P.O. Box 608, Columbia, SC 29202. You might also check your Lawyers Desk Book for a list of Board officers with whom you might wish to discuss volunteering. If you are involved in a claim, you can continue to contact Ms. Dennis at the Bar regarding general matters, but you will need to contact the Circuit Chair, Assigned Member or Hearing Panel with information he, she or they may request or need to investigate that claim.